Pluralistic: They brick you because they can (24 May 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: They brick you because they can (24 May 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

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The interior of a luxury sedan as seen from the driver's PoV, with the driver's hands on the wheel. Mounted to the vent is a Spotify 'Car Thing' - a $90 tablet designed to stream Spotify music. The image has been altered. The sky behind the driver's windscreen is animated TV static. The album thumbnail on the Car Thing UI has been replaced with a 'code waterfall' effect as seen in the credit sequences of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movies. A skeletal robed figure, clutching a sheaf of documents headed with the Spotify logo, reaches out a bony finger to prod at the Car Thing from the left side of the image.

They brick you because they can (permalink)

In "The Scorpion and the Frog," a trusting frog gives a scorpion a ride across a brook, only to be stung to death by his passenger upon arrival. The dying frog gasps "why?" and the scorpion replies, "I am sorry, but I couldn't resist the urge. It's my character":

Capitalism's philosophers had an answer to this conundrum: if the ambition that drives people to enter the business world comes from a "self-interest" that is indistinguishable from sociopathy, just construct a system where it's in a business's best interest to make others better off. Adding the constraints of competition and regulation to markets powered by greed produces an alchemical reaction, transforming selfish acts into altruistic outcomes.

40 years ago, these moral sentiments were conveniently set aside by pro-monopoly economists, who developed the "consumer welfare" theory of antitrust enforcement. Under this theory, monopolies were treated as evidence of "efficiency": any time you saw a monopoly in the wild, it meant that you'd found a business that was so good, everyone chose to patronize them to the exclusion of all others.

Whether or not you believe this to be true, it doesn't matter. A business motivated by selfishness, constrained by competition and regulation, may produce things that the public loves above all else, but once it no longer has competitors, what remains is unconstrained selfishness. Even if you think a monopoly arose out of greatness, without competition it will rapidly decay as the business owner claws value away from workers and customers ("I couldn't resist the urge. It's in my nature." -A. Scorpion).

Enshittification – platform decay – is the result of a collapse in constraints:

Digital companies that capture their markets go on to capture their regulators:

They get to flout privacy, labor and consumer protection law, using digital platforms that can be instantaneously, continuously reconfigured to shift value from business customers and end-users to themselves:

They lobby for ever-expanding IP rights, which lets them shut down competitors who might reverse-engineer and improve their services:

And they gain the whip-hand over their workers, with the power to fire any techie who refuses to carry out their enshittificatory plans:

They become too big to fail. They become too big to jail. They become too big to care:

They enshittify because they can. It's in their nature. Without competition to discipline their enshittificatory urges, they can't resist them.

Digital is different, though. Analog companies can raise their prices, or worsen next year's model of their products. Digital businesses can travel back in time and raise the price of something you already own, but need to pay a "subscription" fee for. They can reach back in time and remove features you've already paid for. They can even go back in time and take away things you already own. The omniflexible, omnipresent digital tether between a device and its manufacturer creates so many urges that they can't resist:

Are you one of 4,000,000 people who built "smart home" products from Wink into your walls, ceiling and foundation slab at any time since they started shipping in 2014? Surprise! Now you have to pay a "subscription" for all of those gadgets or they'll brick your fucking house:

Did you buy a "Mellow Sous Vide" gadget? Surprise, it now costs $48/year to use that gadget!

Did you buy an Exogen ultrasound device to stimulate bone growth after a fracture? Surprise, it bricks itself after you've used it 343 times! Enjoy your e-waste, Hopalong!

Did you buy a Ferrari performance sports-car? Surprise, it bricks itself if it detects "tampering" – and the only way to un-brick it is to connect it to the internet, so you'd better hope it doesn't brick itself deep in an underground parking garage. Oops!

Did you buy a Peloton treadmill? Surprise, your $3,000 "smart" treadmill no longer works in standalone mode – unless you pay $480/year, that treadmill is now a clothes-drying rack:

Did you buy an Epson printer? Surprise! It will brick itself after you print a certain number of pages, for your own good, because otherwise its ink-sponges might leak:

Did you get – no, wait for it – did you get a neural implant? Surprise. The company's new owners don't want to continue supporting your implant, and they won't let anyone else do so either. So now, part of your brain has been bricked:

This is like a lifetime money-back guarantee – for companies. Any company that experience's seller's remorse can cancel or alter the transaction, retroactively. It's as if Darth Vader opened an MBA program whose only lesson was *I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it further":

Darth Vader has the Force. Corporate enshittifiers have something even more powerful: IP law. Companies can cleverly arrange overlapping layers of IP – anticircumvention, trademark, patent, trade secrecy, terms of service, cybersecurity law, contracts – to criminalize otherwise legal activity, like reverse-engineering, jailbreaking, creating alternative clients or third-party parts:

That means that companies know that they can enshittify to their heart's content without fearing a competitor's disenshittification products. Raise the price of ink all you want, because you've figured out how to criminalize generic ink cartridges:

That's a lesson Spotify took to heart. Aaaallll the way back in 2022, Spotify started selling $90 "Car Thing" tablets – little car-vent-mounted gadgets that made it slightly easier to connect your car stereo to your Spotify account. Now that a suitable interval has gone by, Spotify has decided to remotely brick every one of these solid-state devices, no later than December of 2024:

Now, this may seem like a loss to all those Car Thing owners, who are out $90. But consider this: our descendants are gaining thousands of pieces of immortal, infinitely toxic e-waste.

So there's that.

Then there's this: Jason Koebler just published a breakdown of a leaked sSamsung repair contract on 404 Media, revealing how Samsung requires its "independent" repair partners to trick you, abuse you, spy on you, and literally destroy your phone:

First: every time you bring a phone to an independent Samsung repair shop, the company has 24 hours to notify Samsung, providing your name, email, phone number, address, the IMEI of your phone, your warranty status and complaint.

Then, the technician is required to inspect your device for any evidence that you have had it serviced by unauthorized technicians or fixed with third-party replacement parts. If they believe you have failed to act in accord with Samsung's shareholders' interests, the technician is required to immediately destroy your phone and notify Samsung.

(This is radioactively illegal, and has been since 1975, when Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which protects your right to use third-party parts:)

Why does Samsung do this? They can't help themselves. It's in their nature.

Without regulatory constraint, Samsung can eliminate competition and free itself of that constraint, too. They no longer have to worry about the altruism that is said to emerge from selfishness under constraint. They can operate with unconstrained selfishness. They are literally too big to care.

That's why state Right to Repair bills – like the groundbreaking law just passed in Oregon – are so important. They restore discipline to companies like Samsung and Spotify, by protecting the right to reverse-engineer their products and keep them running after the manufacturer has decided to "alter the deal":

Yesterday, iFixit announced that it was ending its partnership with Samsung, through which Samsung provided it with parts and manuals that it could pass on to customers who wanted to fix their Samsung gadgets:

According to iFixit, the breakup was precipitated by Samsung's increasing hostility to repair. That's not surprising. It's in Samsung's nature. They can't help themselves.

We we can help ourselves. In states with muscular Right to Repair laws, we don't need Samsung's permission to keep our phones out of the landfill. Technicians no longer need to be "authorized" to access parts and diagnostics. Samsung may be a prisoner of its enshittificatory impulses, but with the right regulations and competition, we no longer have to tolerate them.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Star Wars with Chinese characteristics

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#10yrsago Did GCHQ reveal secrets about computer insecurity when it exorcised the Snowden leaks from the Guardian’s laptops?

#5yrsago Study attributes mysterious rise in CFC emissions to eastern Chinese manufacturing

#5yrsago Big Tech: “If the USA enforces antitrust laws against us, it means China will win!”

#5yrsago Federal lawsuit calls college textbook/ebook packages a “scam”

#5yrsago To chase out low-waged workers, Mountain View is banning overnight RV and van parking

#5yrsago The Oliver Twist workhouse is becoming a block of luxury flats with a “poor door”

#5yrsago The Reality Bubble: how humanity’s collective blindspots render us incapable of seeing danger until it’s too late (and what to do about it)

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